MERIBEL, France -- They are vindicated.
Whatever happens now, the players and coaches of the U.S. hockey team have this treasure to hold on to.
For six months, they have been bruised, battered and belittled. They have endured a two-continent, five-nation pre-Olympic tour that appeared to be leading nowhere. They have been called bush-leaguers. They have been mistaken for bullies.
But suddenly, they have emerged as full-blown American stars, even though no one knows who these guys are.
"We're just happy that maybe we're starting to get a little bit of respect," defenseman Sean Hill said.
Tonight, the United States faces its most difficult test of the Winter Olympics, meeting pre-tournament favorite Sweden in a final Group A game. With a 4-0 record, the United States is the only unbeaten team and has clinched a berth in the medal round. But this game -- against an experienced international team -- could provide the United States with a barometer of its chances of winning a gold medal.
A victory or a tie would give the United States the top seed and a quarterfinal meeting against Les Miserables, the French. A loss means the Americans will face the more formidable Czechs.
"Success brings more success," U.S. coach Dave Peterson said. "As you go through any kind of a tournament, you pick up momentum if you're winning. I think some teams grow within tournaments -- and some teams don't. I think we've grown."
This is no Miracle at Meribel.
The world, and the world of hockey, have changed dramatically since the United States recorded its "Miracle on Ice" upset over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
Then, the Soviet Union and the United States were at two ends of a political spectrum. The Soviets were sending troops to Afghanistan. The Cold War was in full bloom, and hockey was viewed by some as a Cold War on ice.
"For the players, though, it was never like that," Peterson said. "It was always just a game."
Now, the Soviet empire is destroyed and the Olympic hockey tournament has been transformed.
First, this is a made-for-television event, with a medal round that has been expanded from four to six to eight teams in the past three Olympics. By adding teams to the medal round, the Olympic organizers, plus CBS-TV, virtually ensured that the United States would get a chance to play at least one meaningful game.
The quality of competition also has changed. The best players from the old Eastern bloc are now professionals in the NHL. The U.S. team, once a collection of college kids and young minor-leaguers, has a decidedly older cast.
Moe Mantha, a 31-year-old third-line NHL defenseman, was added to the team in January to solidify a young defense.
Jim Johannson, Guy Gosselin, Scott Young, Clark Donatelli and Greg Brown made it back for their second Olympics.
Then there is Ray LeBlanc, 27, who, until one week ago, was just another journeyman goaltender from Fitchburg, Mass., who last played for the Indianapolis Ice of the International Hockey League.
LeBlanc, so quiet he makes Bonnie Blair sound like Joan Rivers, has been the player of the tournament. He has allowed only four goals in four games and recorded two shutouts -- the most by an Olympic goaltender in 56 years.
"He's a guy with no ego, who only wants to play hockey," said forward Steve Heinze.
Overseeing this bunch is Peterson, the Ugly American of the 1988 Olympics whose rough edges have been polished by Madison Avenue consultants.
He'll never be called a teddy bear, but he has worked hard to accommodate all questions about his team's style and its chances in the tournament.
"We play hard," he said. "We'll make people proud."
A sign of what this tournament means to Peterson can be seen on his blue sweater. During each game he wears a button that says "It's a great day for hockey." The quote was the signature of Bob Johnson, a spiritual godfather of U.S. hockey who died in November, less than six months after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
"I wear it in Bob's memory," Peterson said. "He meant a great deal to U.S. hockey."
While coaching, Peterson calls the time in miles, not minutes, an expression of his belief that a hockey game is a marathon. During a long, unsuccessful pre-Olympic tour against NHL and international teams, Peterson remained calm and patient. Eventually, he assembled a team with surprising quickness and depth, two ingredients needed to cope with wider ice surfaces in Europe.
The U.S. style, aggressive and hard-hitting by international standards, has given opponents fits. But Gene Ubriaco, coach of the Italian team, was impressed by the Americans after a 6-3 defeat.
"They bring an NHL style to the Olympics," he said. "There is nothing wrong with that."
The Swedes have historically disdained the body-banging tactics of the Americans. After a 3-1 loss to the United States before the Olympics, Swedish coach Conny Evensson criticized the Americans.
"The U.S. is a big surprise in this tournament," Evensson said. "But they play simple hockey."
Call it simple, but also call it effective.
"If you had told me two months ago that we'd be in this position, I wouldn't have believed it," forward David Emma said.